One of the most important ways in which players can improve their chess is by improving the thinking process they use to determine their moves. There are several different famous ways in which to do this, and they aren’t mutually exclusive; many methods can complement each other, and it’s possible to take parts of various ideas to form your own method of analyzing a position and forming a plan.
One particularly well-known example of a process of analyzing a position is to consider what international chess master Jeremy Silman has dubbed “imbalances.” These are the fundamental differences that exist between your position and your opponent’s position. After fully examining all seven imbalances, a player should be ready to know where their strengths and weaknesses lie, what they should be able to take advantage of, and—if all the analysis has been done correctly—what their plan is either to secure an advantage or give themselves the best chances possible in the position.
Every beginner knows that material is an important aspect in a position; in fact, it’s how most of us first learn how to keep score. But it’s important to remember that even in positions where one side has a rather large material lead, other factors could be more important (for instance, many sacrifices involve larger threats, such as checkmate, which make material irrelevant).
Material imbalances don’t just refer to the amount of material each player has, but also the type of material on the board, as there can sometimes be “dynamic” equality. For instance, if one side has an extra rook for a bishop and a pawn, that may mean the side with the rook has a slight material edge – but more importantly, each side must think about how to use the material they do have to full effect.
Bishops vs. Knights
This is a special and very common type of material imbalance that’s critical to understand (but rarely fully appreciated by novice players). Bishops and knights are approximately equal in value but thrive in very different types of positions. If a player has a bishop, they are likely to want to open the position, for instance, while knights would rather find outposts and do well when the action is mainly on one side of the board.
Most players are familiar with the idea of pawn structure, but may not entirely understand how to take advantage of it. Both strong and weak formations are important for both players, as they will often dictate where weaknesses exist for each player to attack. Passed pawns and isolated pawns, in particular, present special challenges that come with advantages and disadvantages for each player. Doubled pawns, connected pawns, and backwards pawns must also be considered.
Every improving player has had the importance of development preached to them, but what does an advantage or disadvantage in development actually mean when it comes to planning? Generally, the better-developed player is the one that has the option of launching an attack. On the other hand, a player who is behind in development might be able to form a plan completely around developing their pieces, as the longer this imbalance works against them, the more danger they are likely to find themselves in.
This imbalance often goes hand-in-hand with development, though they are not exactly the same. The initiative essentially belongs to the player who is the attacker; they dictate the flow of the game, forcing the other player to respond to their threats. If you have the initiative, your plan should seek to keep it and maintain or increase pressure on your opponent; if you do not have the initiative, it is often important to reduce the initiative of the opponent or try to take it back entirely.
Space to Move
This imbalance allows you to know how much room each player has to maneuver their pieces. If you have a space advantage, you may want to press this by putting pressure on your opponent and restricting their freedom of movement. The player behind in space may wish to force exchanges, hoping that the small amount of space they have will be more maneuverable with fewer pieces on the board, rather than having all of their pieces tripping over each other.
Open Lines and Weak Squares
This final imbalance is perhaps the most difficult for novices to get a feel for. Often, plans can revolve around finding out which squares, files, ranks, and diagonals are the most important on the board, and seeking to control them. Similarly, a weak square in the enemy’s position can form the entire basis for an attack, as a major hole in a key point in their position could cause their entire game to fall apart.